I want to feed the sparrow in your heart

My friend is planning for a weekend trip with her not-yet-divorced man. She tells me about it, seeking – I think – my approval.

“Do you think it’s a terrible idea?” she asks me over coffee, although the plans have already been made.

I shrug. “It doesn’t really matter what I think,” I say, but then I go on to tell her what I think.

“I worry about you,” I say. “I think you make it too easy for him to drift along like this. Indefinitely.” “I think you’re going to get hurt,” I say.

“I don’t care about getting hurt,” she says, as she leans back in her chair. She gathers up her hair in one hand, and with the other, wraps a rubber band around it. “I mean, that’s a given, right? That was built in from the start.”

I open my mouth to speak, then close it.

“I just want to get away for a few days, you know, just a little escape,” she says.

It’s getting late. I have things I need to do. I say: “I just don’t see this as a long-term solution.”

“To what?” she asks.

“To anything.”

She hesitates, puts the plastic lid back on her paper cup, wraps a napkin around it.

“I guess I don’t think about it in those terms. As something that needs a solution,” she says.

She holds the door open for me and I walk past. The air is sweet today, smells of spring.

“Fair enough,” I say, “fair enough.”

My college roommate would sometimes walk in her sleep. I discovered this one night when I woke to see her standing over my bed, looking down at me, her head tilted to one side, like she was considering a painting hanging on a museum wall. Her hands were clasped in front of her up by her chin. Her expression was benign – benevolent, even. Her eyes were open. I lay very still, confused at first. Was I dreaming? And then before I could speak or act, she turned around and walked back across the room to her bed.

In the morning, I asked her about it and she was apologetic, embarrassed. “That hasn’t happened to me in months,” she said, “I think it must be the stress of being so far from home.”

A few times after, although not very many, I would wake to see her standing somewhere in the room, holding her hands together in front of her – near the window by the foot of her bed, or in the center of the room, or hovering near my desk. She didn’t mention it again and neither did I.

The road construction detour takes me on a circuitous route into work. The traffic patterns change every morning, it seems.

At the bus stop, a girl in striped tights hugs the man standing next to her. He gazes past her down the street, watching for the bus.

I drive past the hospital, stop at the crosswalk while two elderly women make their way from the parking lot to the hospital entrance. They move in tandem with slow, measured steps. It is not easy to watch them, really, impatient as I have become, but I sit there, try to breathe deeply, close my eyes for a moment, waiting. And when I open them again, I can move on.

A phrase from a song runs through my head as I walk from the parking lot into the office: I want to be your medicine, I want to feed the sparrow in your heart.

This from the album “Shallow Grave” by The Tallest Man on Earth, discovered on vinyl at the tiny record store over by the entrance to the highway.

Earlier this week, I spend a morning at a philharmonic concert for children. The auditorium – grand, stunning – is packed. In the front section, students hold their recorders in their laps, waiting for their cue to join the orchestra. It is hard not to be moved by the opening strains of Dvorak’s New World Symphony – the familiarity of it, the way it has seeped into my experience without my awareness. Then, Stravinsky’s Firebird.

I know nothing about classical music. Less than nothing. It is not something I would have sought out on my own, truth be told, and yet, I find myself, when the concert is done, exiting the grand hall out into the bright afternoon – lifted, lightened, calmed.

At night, my friend calls me to talk about the weekend trip again. She’s plaintive, searching.

“Look, you do what you need to do. I’m not judging you,“ I say.

“You are.”

I tell her I am not. Only that I am worried about her. That I don’t trust that he knows what he is doing. I don’t know that she does either, but that, I do not say.

“If you were me, would you go?” she asks.

“I am not you.”

“But if you were, would you?”

I am walking up the stairs to the bathroom, to run the water for my son’s bath. On the landing, I pause, sit down on the top step. “I’d like to think that I wouldn’t,” I say.

“Because of the drinking?” she asks. “Or because he’s not divorced yet? Or the whole I think I want to have a baby thing?”

“Yes,” I say quietly as I stand up to resume the evening’s tasks. “Exactly.”

Years ago, as my marriage is ending, I run into a friend from college while she is in town, visiting from New York. We stop on the sidewalk in front of the movie theatre to catch up. A couple minutes into the conversation about the people we know in common, she reaches out and puts her hand on my arm near my shoulder. “Sweetie,” she says, “there’s something I have to tell you.”

I say ok, sure, and we move closer in from the edge of the sidewalk, stand near the entrance to the theatre, beneath the awning. “This is totally not the way I wanted to tell you this,” she begins, “but I just don’t want you to hear it from anyone else.” 

I am curious, expectant.

“I ran into B. downtown,” she says, and then she pauses, starts again. “Do you remember K.?”

I do, of course: a mutual friend of all of ours.

And then the story goes on like this: K. throws a party at her house on Long Island. B. is there. This friend of mine is there. “We were drunk,” she says. “I mean, really drunk.”

“And we were out on the beach, and we started talking,” I hold up my hand to interrupt her.

“I get it,” I say. “You don’t need to say anymore.”

“You had already split up,” she says, “you had already moved back here.”

I laugh. I tell her, “Please. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s fine. Really. We were already – ”

She brings her hand to her chest, sighs. “I’m so glad to hear you say that,” she says. “I’ve felt so badly about it for months.”

“No need,” I tell her. “It was already over. Had already been over for a long, long time.”

She sees someone she recognizes walking toward us. She calls out, waves, starts moving past me. She stops then, turns back to face me, takes both my hands.

“Oh, sweetie,” she says, clasping my hands and shaking them in hers, “I’m so glad I got to tell you. I feel so much better now.”

She drops my hands, leans in to hug me. My arms are at my sides, but she embraces me like that, says, “It is so good to see you. You have to call me when you’re in the city.”

“I will,” I say as she backs away, "definitely.”

Then she turns around to make her way down the street.


In the morning, when the fever breaks, I eat voraciously: Fried eggs, bacon, toast with strawberry jelly. Two sliced pears. A pancake with maple syrup. Fingerling potatoes fried with zucchini and leeks. Coffee – black, hot.

My hunger surprises me. I eat almost to the point of discomfort, then try to read the newspaper, curled up on the couch, under a blanket. Instead, with a burst of the energy I have been lacking for days, I clean the kitchen – the dishes, the counters, the stove. The morning is bright and through the window, looks cold. I am still warm though, from breakfast, perhaps from the sickness, and the kitchen, too – warm from cooking. I imagine throwing all the windows open wide, letting in the fresh winter air, inhaling deeply. It feels so good to be moving again, after more than twenty-four hours of immobility – a small, quiet kind of rebirth.

I spend the day of my illness drifting in and out of sleep, in and out of fevered dreams. Scenes from childhood bump up against present-day life. I am walking up the stairs to my office, but as my six-year-old self, in the red polyester pants and striped shirt I loved as a child. I wake for a few minutes, my son standing over me. He tells me about the game he is playing, the rules that he makes up as he goes along. I nod, reach my hand out to touch his cheek. I close my eyes – just for a moment, I think, and then I am going to get up – and before I know it, it is dark.

I am hot – throw the blanket off, pull off my socks. And then I am cold again. All the while, my family drifts in and out. They go to the pool to swim and when they come back, their skin and hair smells of chlorine as the hover near me, their heads cocked to the side, watching. Food appears – toast and tea. Soup. I sit up, drink. Eat. Then lay back down again. And I am gone.

When I was a child, my aunt, my mother’s sister, lived in the apartment beneath ours. For a time, she worked nights, on a special assignment at the law firm where she was a secretary. She would leave in the late afternoon and return home after midnight. My bedroom window looked out over the front entrance and some nights, when I had trouble sleeping, I would wait up to hear her footsteps on the front stairs, her key in the lock. I would kneel up on my bed, peek out over the sill, watch until the door closed behind her.

There was reason to be vigilant. Talk of strange happenings in our neighborhood. A story on the late night news about how – in the church parking lot not far from where we lived – there was found a pile of stones and the remains of a fire inside a large painted circle. Bits of bone found in the embers. Mesmerizing words whispered late at night – sacrifice, satanic rituals, cults.

As I think may be true for many girls raised in Catholic families, attending Catholic schools, there was a time when I believed that I might, in fact, have a calling. We go on retreat in grade school, to a distant convent where we pray and prepare our meals together, spend the night in sleeping bags on the polished wooden floor.

We learn of the saints and the martyrs. Stephen, stoned to death for faith. We reach up and touch the cool stone of his statue, feel the hollows meant to depict his wounds. Beautiful Lucy who plucked her own eyes out lest her beauty lead her to sin. She holds them out on a plate, the two perfect orbs offered up like after-dinner sweets.

We take Communion, let the papery wafers melt on our tongues. We kneel down on velvet-lined cushions, hold our heads in our small folded hands. We are told to be open to the Holy Spirit. To ask for the Spirit to enter us, to fill us with grace. On the bus ride home, I sit alone, pray silently as the rest of the students are led in hymns. It is a particular burden, I recognize, to be called by the Holy Spirit, and I weighed down with it. At night, in bed, in confusion and fear as I wait to hear the familiar sounds of my aunt returning home, delivered safely in grace, I pray myself to sleep.

Last night, I rally my strength for a dinner party, the date of which had been set long ago. We drive up in the dark, and still, I marvel at how dark it is, so early. I misremember the house number, so we wander for a few minutes on the dark street. Through the lit window of a house near the corner, I can see a woman standing at the counter, her hair pulled back in a blue scarf, her eyes down. From another house, the pungent aroma of garlic and onions cooking. Finally, we are rescued by our host, who has come out into the street to fetch us. “Twenty-four,” he says as he guides us to the door.

Every part of the meal seems extravagant, rich. From the cocktails and candied nuts and gougeres, to the cauliflower soup, the delicate savory dumplings. We dine at a long table dressed smartly in muted colors. White dishes, crystal glasses. On the walls, a painted mural of the hunt – jacketed men on horseback, the dogs running on ahead against a pastoral landscape. I eat roast leg of lamb for the first time. It is infused with garlic and rosemary. It is tender, succulent. We eat savory bread pudding, glazes and sauces. Warm homemade biscuits. The wine flows.

The conversation meanders in pleasant fashion through many topics on which I feel no need to comment, enjoying as I do, the easy exchange around me. I am full and warm and drowsy as we drive home through the dark, cold night.